02 November 2007

Bull in a China Shop - The Fall of Chinese Bike Culture

I spent a few months in China in 1990 and again in 1992 and one of the moments of clarity I remember most was riding about on a black Chinese standard bike and entering a roundabout in central Beijing.

I had ridden all about the country on the bike but nothing could have prepared me for that roundabout. First of all it was the size of a small African nation, with six roads using it as a hub.

Secondly, I entered a fantastic school of cycling fish. Literally hundreds of cyclists. I could see no rhyme or reason for their movement. It was a fluent, poetic swirling mass of cyclism. There were no hand signals and nary an over the shoulder glance when one of the hundreds exited the roundabout. It was timed to perfection.

No collisions, no talking, no sound at all. The occasional eye contact perhaps.

And there was I. Caught in an operatic maelstrom. I had no idea how to get out of the mass to exit down my street. I ended up circling four times, gradually edging my way to the kerb and making a break for it.

Thrilling, exhilirating.

Sadly, it's a scene out of the past. The bike has fallen out of favour with the nouveau riche. They are turning to the car in shocking numbers. I'm all for China gaining in prosperity and becoming a superpower. No problem. But they're ditching something amazing in the process.

Car ownership increased by 20% last year alone, reaching 22 million according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Motorways and ring roads are being built at an alarming rate.

Just ten years ago there were 500 million cyclists in China. The bike was emperor of the roads. It was the only way to go and the fastest way to get there.

But whereas two thirds of families traveled by bike in the 90's, it is only 20% today. Bike ownership in cities has plummeted by 25% in the past five years.

That still gives you 7 million bikes in the capital, but these rates are alarming and not a little sad.

I miss that roundabout in 1990 dreadfully.

Our only consolation here at Copenhagenize.com is that Danes and Dutch are inspiring other Europeans to embrace the bike. Berlin, Paris, London, among many others. All moving for a greater bike culture.


Papà Volontario said...

What a pity for China (but unfortunatly some parts of Italy are the same ...). They are missing health and sustainable way of living. But we are not going so far away: I have just read on a newspaper that this year for the very first time the amount of extracted oil will be less than the one of the year before. THe beginning of the end of the world as we know it. Regards

16:9 said...

Which is why it is an excellent time to invest in Danish wind power companies... :-)

Denmark gets 20%+ of her energy from wind power. That triples during storms.

We are gunning for 50% by 2015. So I'm not that worried about oil.

Papà Volontario said...

I wish I had your trust. We've thrown away 30-40 years, at the moment I can see no real alternatives, neither wind mills nor photovoltaic panels nor .... I believe they can only shift the problem for few years.

radzi said...

Yeah it's truly disheartening every time I am back there I find that more roads are closed to bicycles. Of course it's still a major mode of transportation there, but it is indeed regarded to be something backward & prole - ironically no longer a word with positive connotations in a "socialist" state like China.

Familiar childhood sights like a family of three gets around on a single bike with the kid on the top tube & mom at the rear is getting rare nowadays in the big city, since it's illegal now. Of course to the government it's all so-called progress, but to see what was once one of the great cycling cultures diminish is truly a sad affair.

DeepBlueSea said...

It terrifies me to think of the environmental effects of millions of additional cars on the Chinese roads. The air quality will soon be so poor (if it isn't already) that no one will want to ride a bike.
I wonder about the quality and emission levels of the cars over there. I suspect, very cheap, very bad... please someone tell me I'm wrong.

radzi said...

Actually the official emission standard in China is getting better, and will in theory at least be inline with EURO IV by the end of the decade. Though how stringently it is, or can be enforced causes more concern (pretty much like all laws & regulations in a developing nation).

The air quality is already quite appalling, especially compared with places like Australia. Sadly it will certainly get worse before it gets better, and can only happen through far more restrictions on industries & motor vehicle usage - something not too likely to happen in the foreseeable future unless perceptions change both for the goverment & the general public in regard to long-term responsiblities towards the environment. There is an old Chinese saying that goes "as long as the mountains are green, there will be no shortage of firewood", unfortunately not something current mandarins are too concerned with.

Anonymous said...

Not only is it a shame that the Chinese bike culture is suffering. But now mailorder companies, exploit cheap labor to import bikes with dubious quality control. Companies like IBEX, show that they have bottom line strategies that impact their quality. Buy cheap (like IBEX) and destroy even the American small manufacturer.